Leiden Law Blog

Travel bans for known child sex offenders: tackling the “paedophile” threat?

Travel bans for known child sex offenders: tackling the “paedophile” threat?

Recently, Australia adopted a new law to revoke the passports of known child sex offenders in what the Justice Minister framed as “the strongest crackdown on child sex tourism ever”. Australia is not the only state with plans to do so; in the Netherlands, too, several political parties and organisations appear to be in favour of a similar measure. While it is praiseworthy that governments are taking responsibility to protect children abroad from abuse by their citizens, from a criminological viewpoint one might ask: will passport revocation measures be effective enough to “crack down” on this phenomenon?

Transnational child sexual abuse, also known as child sex tourism, is increasingly recognised as a global problem which impacts every region of the world. Governments across the globe have responded to combat and prevent this phenomenon in various ways, with some measures seeking specifically to prevent known child sex offenders from reoffending abroad. In Australia, registered child sex offenders will be prohibited from leaving the country or holding Australian passports; the idea being that in doing so, sex offenders will no longer be able to travel abroad to sexually abuse children there. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings has advocated for a similar measure.

From a criminological viewpoint, it is clear that a travel ban and passport revocation measures will only affect a very specific group of (potential) perpetrators. Unsurprisingly, the travel ban is imposed on known child sex offenders: therefore new offenders, who are as yet unknown to the judicial authorities, are unaffected by the measure. In addition, the law-makers behind this bill appear to operate under the assumption that transnational child sex offenders are – as remarked by the Australian senator behind the bill – “paedophiles” going on “child rape holidays”. This image is not only incorrect, but actually unhelpful.

As we described in a recent report, perpetrators of child sexual abuse can be distinguished into two groups: so-called preferential offenders, who travel abroad with the deliberate intention to have sexual contact with a child, and situational offenders, who appear to commit this offence ‘by chance’ when the opportunity arises at the place of destination. Various experts believe that these situational offenders constitute the invisible majority of transnational child sex offenders. In framing child sex tourism as a threat by “paedophiles”, and drawing up laws that target only the preferential offender group, law-makers therefore risk turning a blind eye to a significant portion of offenders. Ultimately, this could mean that the police, judicial authorities, and policymakers are investing a great deal of time, trouble, and human and financial resources in measures that can only be effective for a small proportion of the offender population.

Though it is commendable that governments are taking responsibility to “crack down” on sexual abuse by their citizens in other countries, the superlatives in the rhetoric about this particular Australian measure are undue. A travel ban should, at best, be considered as a starting point. Moving forward, a holistic approach is needed, made up of different policy measures that are tailored to the different types of offenders and their different methods, not just to the “paedophile” stereotype. And herein lies the responsibility, mission, and challenge for us, the scientific community: to further investigate the different faces and forms of this harmful phenomenon, so that law enforcement and policy can combat it more effectively.

To read more about the characteristics, motives and methods of transnational child sex offenders, see the report by Koning & Rijksen-van Dijke (2016) here (in Dutch). An English version will be available this summer. 

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